GET OUT: Escaping the chilly for Chile

By on February 24, 2015
The distinctive mountains of Parque National de Torres del Paine. (Photo credit: Elizabeth Koutrelakos)

The distinctive mountains of Parque National de Torres del Paine. (Photo credit: Elizabeth Koutrelakos)

It seems like a majority of the Jackson population has decided upon a mid-winter to journey to Japan. My initial question upon these ventures is: Why Japan?

Although I love fresh sushi, I’m not a huge fan of Fukushima radiation, plus there is snow in Wyoming too! The Yellowstone Caldera is home to a plethora of hot springs. More importantly, this place holds all of my salts, peppers, olive oil and truffle butters. There may not be monkeys in said hot springs, but let’s be honest, I don’t really want to be scantily dressed with a bunch of monkeys anyway.

If I go away, I want to go to a place that is completely different than mid-winter in the northwest corner of Wyoming. Back in the days of my impulsive youth, when I didn’t use conditioner or soap of any kind for that matter, I went somewhere that offered winter activities not found in Jackson.

I chose a place where I could see dirt on the trails, where fresh food was abundant, and I didn’t need to bring my top-of-the-line puffy. I chose a place where an eight-ounce tent could provide the most comfortable abode. Most of all, I chose a place where I knew I could walk forever.

My journey began on the dry land of Ushuaia, the capitol of Tierra del Fuego and the southernmost city in the world, after abandoning a mildewed and leaky 29-foot sailboat. I will not delve into the reasons behind escaping this shanty dwelling, but for the record, it is possible to be seasick for three straight months. The weather on the southern tip of Argentina was cold and wintery, despite it being summertime in the Southern Hemisphere.

From there, I hitchhiked north along an international highway. I spent the night eating canned oysters and risotto in the cab of an 18-wheeler. This may sound like a sketchy scenario, but I felt safe and the driver was not creepy. He landed me in Chile and somehow I managed to skip out of the exorbitant fees that result from being an American in a faraway country.

From there, I attempted to hitchhike into the dusk. Darkness was imminent, I felt dirty, but the air was warm. I spotted a place to get a haircut and paid $1 for a nice shampoo and condition. From there, I nestled beneath a bridge and slept on the outskirts of Puerto Natales, Chile.

Chile, the land where sheep are tender and mountains are looming. (Photo credit: Elizabeth Koutrelakos)

Chile, the land where sheep are tender and mountains are looming. (Photo credit: Elizabeth Koutrelakos)

First thing in the morning, a nice old lady picked me up and drove me to her farm. She offered me fresh lamb and a place to stay. It was on this day that I decided to forgo 19 years of vegetarianism; I haven’t looked back since. I stayed with her family, and helped her brand sheep outside of Parque National de Torres del Paine. But alas, the mountains were calling, so I ventured into the park with snacks, a stove, and camping gear.

Many people recommended the W-Circuit, a classic walk that ends at a big lake and a major fee for a shuttle back across the lake. I opted to forgo the payment and do the full loop given my propensity for enjoyment of large circles. The days were long, and I stepped with joy over every ant, rock and stream. I quickly learned that this park had numerous dwellings called refugios, where visitors could pay for meals, wine, beds or tents. Initially, I thought of camping in the bushes to forgo the daily fees, however I eventually opted to stay at the campsites by the hotels in favor of safety and accessible red wine.

I followed the Rio Paine to Lake Dickinson. I don’t recall much of the trail as I didn’t have a map and followed the orange markers; I remember a sunset ascent of a trail up John Gardner Pass, looking down at the large salmon-colored chunks of Grey Glacier. As it was summer in the Southern Hemisphere, I was able to walk at least 18 hours a day, thus fulfilling my need for incessant movement of my legs.

After descending this pass, my memory gets very blurry. I remember having a fever, possibly from bad food or water at one of the refugios. I think I passed out by a stream and threw up, because when I woke up, some very attractive, shiny-haired Chilean guys were holding my hair back and asking me if I was all right.

From there, they helped me get from “Vomit Creek” to one of the shelters, located about a football field across a mucky meadow. Each step felt eternally far from the anticipated goal. Once I got there, the humans were friendly and loved my Sour Patch Kids. Within a couple of days, I was back to my happy walking self. I ended my walk slowly. The mountains looked like a painting in black-and-white granite. I settled myself in calafate bush and enjoyed the most prolifically plump berry patch the world had to offer. Slight sadness ensued as I contemplated doing the loop again, but my worn and dusty sandals called me back to cold weather.

I don’t have any “sick powder shots” or GoPro footage from this winter venture outside of Jackson Hole, although somewhere in the depths of storage is a very old, worn pair of underwear that stayed on me the entire trek. I didn’t see any monkeys in exotic waters, but I spotted a bunch of llamas and basked in the joy of homemade Chilean gelato on a hot winter day. Should I decide to forgo a winter in wonderland again, I will continue to choose unique places that offer nice truckers, fresh lamb, no monkeys and lots of walking.

The author enjoys the perspective during a side jaunt into the Valle de Frances.  (Photo credit: Elizabeth Koutrelakos)

The author enjoys the perspective during a side jaunt into the Valle de Frances. (Photo credit: Elizabeth Koutrelakos)

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